Translation and new knowledge fields in the Arab language
Text taken from the conference held at Saint Joseph University on Reflection Day: “Beirut, Translation Hub” on November 19th, 2009
Translator : EL HAJJ Nicole
1. A debate on translation
From the mid 90’s, new conceptual tools emerged in the discourse of international experts active in the field of education, training, scientific research, policies and human development in general. This particularly applies to expressions such as “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy”. They were used to describe the new global status emerging from the conjunction of scientific and technological dynamism on the one hand and on the other, a competitive economic context completely transformed by the free flow of international trade.
Indeed, we notice that markets are no longer protected by geographic borders and economic competitiveness is heading towards an increasingly intense globalization. The first outcome of this movement is a disruption of economic strategies. Thus, strategies that were until recently, limited to exporting raw material or supplying cheap labor were replaced by research and innovation-based strategies. One of the main dimensions of what is called “knowledge economy” is the training of self-programmable labor that can constantly provide increasingly efficient and new ideas and products. In other words, the world in the 21st century seems to be excluding any society that does not take part in the global modern knowledge production and consumption process. Changes in economic strategies led to a mutation of universities that were so far playing a double role of being elite production facilities and critical thinking havens. Henceforth, they are thrown into uncertain ground where the contradicting requirements of markets, science and critical thinking collide.
Translation and “knowledge society”: Based on this new interpretation disseminated by the third UNDP Arab Human Development Report, the debate on translation as a means to access modern knowledge and bridge the scientific gap between Arab and Western societies resurfaced in the Arab world.
Very quickly however, no doubt due to the post 9/11 international context, the debate terms will be expressed in a culturalist rhetoric combining expressions such as “civilizational crisis”, “civilizational challenge”, “dialogue of cultures” or “bridging cultures”1. Based on a partial and vague knowledge of the status of translation in the Arab world, the first diagnosis was alarming rather shocking for the Arab policy-makers. The first chock was induced by the statistical comparisons between the total publications and translations numbers in the entire Arab world and Israel (e.g. in 1986, 268 titles were translated in the Arab world versus 462 in Israel which population is fifty times less than that of the Arab countries)2. The feeling that the Arab countries are closed to others was reinforced by other comparisons with some small and medium-sized European countries such as Greece and Spain. But it is mainly the challenging quote which revealed that “the Arabs wouldn’t have translated more than 10 000 titles since the rule of Caliph al-Mamoun, i.e. the number of titles translated by Spain in one year”3 that remained in minds and had the biggest psychological impact on Arab elite. Little difference did it make that this statement was wrong, the fact is that we are dealing with a new explanation of the Arab “decadence” (inhitat); it is emerging from insufficient translation efforts and thus from an excessive cultural isolation.
War of numbers: The debate on translation, initiated by the above-mentioned UNDP report, will be primarily of a statistical nature. With the lack of knowledge about the publishing, marketing and consumption channels sociology in the Arab world and particularly with the serious shortages in the modalities of producing statistics on the Arab editorial production, the statistics of the said report, with reference to UNESCO and ALECSO, did not reflect the reality of translation in the Arab countries, far from it. We were able to validate that fact in the case of Morocco in a study published in 20054. We compared throughout several years, locally produced statistical data based on a direct publications catalogue and those of the ALECSO’s Arab Publications Bulletin. In the latter, and in the best-case scenario, only 27% of Moroccan publications were mentioned (2000). Other researchers such as Franck Mermier and Richard Jacquemond have shown in recent studies5 that annually, an average of 2000 to 3000 translations are published in the Arab countries, i.e. seven folds the numbers of the UNDP Report. The example of Morocco, which editorial production and translated materials we were able to examine in details, clearly reflects the unreliability of regional and international organizations statistics and highlights the restrictions of conclusions pertaining to the publishing activity, translations and cultural practices in general.
Translation and “dialogue of cultures”: On the other hand, with the launching of new Arab official initiatives to support and promote translation, the inter-Arab debate will focus on the problem within the framework of “dialogue of cultures”, “bridging cultures” and “openness to the other”. Some even considered that translation might have become the path that leads to a new Nahda. This “dialogue” rhetoric gladly conjures the golden age of the Arab-Islamic civilization and the memory of the legendary Beit al-hikma reminiscent of Bagdad as the global translation hub of cultural, philosophical and scientific Greek, Persian and Hindu heritage. It was believed that it would be enough to launch a wide translation movement for a new Arab Renaissance to emerge, ending a long cycle of “decadence”. Notwithstanding these cultural virtues, translation would also be, according to the rhetoric disseminated by the Arab and international experts, the remedy to identity isolation, fanaticism and hatred of the other.
We must recognize that the dialogue rhetoric similarly to the statistics weapon, have raised the awareness amongst Arab decision-makers and sponsors as to the need for public programs and funds for translation. We can even confirm that, in light of the dynamics that this intellectual and editorial production sector has been witnessing for several years, the awareness objective is almost reached. However, we must highlight that this does not render less anachronous, an approach that naively compares two totally different historic eras and refers to a historic sequence of which very little established scientific information is available despite the considerable number of books that were dedicated to it in the contemporary Arab world7.
2. Translation and cultural modernization
The false debate on statistics will no doubt be overcome by systematic documentary reviews and generic or specialized bibliographic databases dedicated to Arab translations8. As for the debate on the civilizational dimension of translation and its contribution to the dialogue of cultures, it seems to be less of an in-depth debate than an ideological exploitation of the translation issue under the global management of the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The reach of such an endeavor is limited to its rhetoric effects and to the achievement of its unique concrete objective i.e. raising the awareness and understanding of Arab policy-makers and sponsors of the importance of translation. Nonetheless, this circumstantial approach does not seem to provide the elements for an adequate answer to the fundamental questions.
The Arab world is not the only cultural or geopolitical area that must face the vital necessity of translating the modern knowledge produced by Europe and North America in our current times. Japan, China, India as well as South Korea worked relentlessly on translations throughout the twentieth century. More recently, at the turn of the century, and in the wake of important political upheavals, the former USSR countries started massively translating western classics. Muslim countries such as Turkey and Iran are facing the same challenge.
The question today facing the Arab countries (intellectual elite, universities, research centers, translation funds and programs, publishers etc.) is how to escape the current situation summed-up by Richard Jacquemond in a concise sentence that expresses all the Arab uneasiness: “we still translate very few, very late, never the books that must be translated and never as it should be”?9
The inaugural intuition of Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) - founder of the School of Languages (Madrasat al-alsun) in 1835 upon his return from France where he managed the first Egyptian students’ group sent to learn modern sciences - is still relevant. The colonial era and the few decades that followed have maybe mitigated its urgency especially with the training of local elites who could speak the occupant’s language and had a direct access to its knowledge. Nonetheless, when the different Arab States universalized the Arabic language in education, the issue resurfaced in a more pressing manner than in the 19th century.
The knowledge situation in a country like Morocco mirrors perfectly this contrast. After half a century of university education, PhD students training and arabization of higher education of almost all human and social disciplines with the exception of economic sciences and management, 60% of Moroccan publications cover literature, law, history and religion. In other words, knowledge fields that were prevailing in the early 21st century had almost the same configuration as the traditional ones where the local elites excelled at the eve of the French-Spanish Protectorate. The bibliometric analysis of the Moroccan intellectual production, leads us to consider that with the end of the colonial era and with the arabization of education, the intellectual tradition regained its ground by gradually reactivating the old knowledge fields10. This acknowledgment applies also to the other Arab countries where the publishing sector is still dominated by religious, literary, political or historical publications11. Founded with the objective of meeting the needs of administration, economy, education and thinking modernization, the Arab universities, failing ownership of modern knowledge fields, contributed mainly to the re-traditionalization of thinking and culture.
Translate to provide modern knowledge fields in the Arab language
In the 19th century, the main epistemological revolution took place in Europe which spawned a multitude of knowledge fields organized in scientific disciplines that are recognized today under many denominations: sociology, anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, economy, geography, history, psychology, political science, art history, musicology or archeology. The old disciplines like philosophy or literary criticism suffered deep mutations. At a later stage, new related disciplines emerged within American and European universities (cultural studies, gender studies, international relations, public health, etc.). Each of these disciplines developed its own objective, research methods and conceptual framework. Thus, through each one of those, a dynamic theoretical and practical knowledge corpus was established. These disciplines have been for several decades, methodologically becoming more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary mainly due to an increasing complexity of study subjects and the trend of increasingly perfected and accurate specializations.
If these scientific disciplines were developed in the West and have known a continuous momentum and development, it is mainly because they meet many intellectual and social needs related to research, higher education, all levels of education and knowledge dissemination as well as economic and administrative expectations. However, while falling under the framework of the State-Nation and fulfilling its needs, the modern social and human sciences still abide by universal epistemological imperatives.
In the absence of profound social, political and religious reforms required by the regular life of the modern State-Nation, the Arab societies did not succeed in integrating these modern knowledge fields in their universities and cultural fields in general. For lack of such a scientific and cultural revolution, even the rereading of their intellectual traditions was transformed into some kind of a sterile re-traditionalization of the education system and minds. The identity claim and the nostalgic discourse of a cultural “golden age” ended by neutralizing the inaugural intuition of pioneers such as Al-Tahtawi; an intuition that did not imagine any other exit than the modernization process of the Arab societies; a process that necessarily goes through the western school.
Translation would therefore be the strong expression of this will to learn and rebuild oneself. The Arab translation strategies that are so widely mentioned cannot induce the expected effect without an acute awareness of the Arab societies delay in the appropriation of modern knowledge fields. Therefore, we can measure the size of the task and imagine the optimal pathways and means to achieve it. We can already consider that, given the current status of the Arab world, the bulldozer strategy (translating everything) is not only impossible, due to our human, intellectual, linguistic and material capacities, but it is also irrational and counter-productive. A quick analysis of distant (Abbasid era) as well as near (the literary modernization experience which started in 1950-1960 in Beirut) experiences, show the efficiency of a three-level approach: translation of fundamental texts, of studies providing an intelligent context dissemination and of pedagogic tools which are likely to integrate modern thinking into culture, society, economy and politics. Such a task requires a rational division of work amongst the various public and private actors.
First level: building up modern knowledge systems in Arabic made up of disciplinary fields responding to the education, research and culture needs in direct relation with the economy, administration and society management. This task must be entrusted to researchers, scientists and specialized translators. It is a complex, intellectually demanding and long-term job. It concerns universities, research centers, public translation institutions, big funds and translation assistance and promotion programs. It must focus on fundamental texts, the classics of each discipline and reference tools (specialized dictionaries, thematic encyclopedias, etc.).
Second level: the dissemination of modern knowledge that meets the society needs for general knowledge; it is a task that could be undertaken by the private publishers. It concerns summaries, critical works, reference books collections targeting the educated wide public, press and media and all those who contribute to general knowledge and influence the public opinion.
Third level: the integration of modern knowledge disciplines into the education system through the production of pedagogic tools adapted to pupils, students and teachers. Education universalization requires, no doubt, learning foreign languages. However, experience has shown that it would be fruitless to believe in the possibility of pushing a society towards modern culture without the development of the national language(s). At this level of the translation process, the modern knowledge dissemination in society should be undertaken via commentaries, introductory texts, bilingual editions and dictionaries that are adapted to education requirements. This task could be assumed by the various pedagogic bodies of the Ministry of National Education, research centers in pedagogy or specialized private publishers.
Following a first awareness phase, which as we have mentioned, is almost reaching its objectives with the elaboration of many public and private translation promotion programs, the new cycle of the Arab translation movement must be dedicated to the elaboration of a new vision that is likely to guide the current dynamic.
The visible and audible aspiration of the contemporary Arab societies to revive their cultural heritage has a lot to gain from the translation and transfer of modern knowledge into Arabic. For it should be reminded that the intelligibility and ownership of the Arab cultural and scientific heritage will not be bestowed upon us by the favor of a certain belonging to the culture itself. In addition, the “turath” category along with the notion of immediate and accessible heritage that it carries would not be adequate to tackle the problem of intellectual heritage today. If Europe succeeded in rediscovering its cultural “heritage” as well as the heritage of others, it is mainly through a new knowledge. The intelligent work of a translation targeting the fundamental books of the modern thinking will not only be a step towards the other, it will also and mostly be the means to imagine our own cultural and historical being.
 . See e.g. the terms used in the arguments of various Arab translation promotion programs such as the one launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation that aims at translating 1000 books in three years i.e. a book a day. It is in the same context that the Arab Organization for Translation in Beirut and other Arab public and private institutions operate.
 شوقي جلال محمد، "تقرير المسح الميداني لوضع الترجمة الراهن في الوطن العربي"، في الترجمة في الوطن العربي : نحو إنشاء مؤسسة عربية للترجمة، بيروت : مركز دراسات الوحدة العربية، 1998، ص. 97.
 This sentence was published in the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) book National Plan for Translation (الخطة القومية للترجمة) ; borrowed by Chawki Jalal Mohamed in the above-mentioned article and disseminated by the third Arab Human Development Report (UNDP, 2003) on Building a Knowledge Society.
 Mohamed-Sghir Janjar, « L’édition dans le Maroc indépendant : 1955-2003 » in Dimensions culturelles artistiques et spirituelles, Cinquantenaire de l’Indépendance du Royaume du Maroc, Rabat, 2005.
 See Richard Jacquemond, « Les politiques publiques de traduction vers l’arabe des années 1950 à nos jours » in La traduction des sciences sociales dans le monde arabe contemporain, Casablanca : Fondation du Roi Abdul-Aziz, 2008, p. 53. Franck Mermier, Le livre et la ville : Beyrouth et l’édition arabe, Arles : Actes Sud / Sindbad, 2005, p. 181.
 It is enough to examine the themes of dozens of colloquiums and conferences organized throughout the Arab world and the wordings Translation Prizes, Funds and Assistance Programs to grasp the little realism and emotional, even apologetic character of the current translation debate.
 The book of Dimitri Gutas entitled: Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasaid Society (2nd-4th/5th-10th c.), translated from English by Abdesselam Cheddadi, Pensée grecque, culture arabe : le mouvement de traduction gréco-arabe à Bagdad et la société abbasside primitive, II-IV, VIIIe-Xe siècles, Paris : Aubier, 2005. It was also translated into Arabic by Nicolas Ziyada :
الفكر اليوناني والثقافة العربية : حركة الترجمة اليونانية-العربية في بغداد والمجتمع العباسي المبكر، بيروت : مركز دراسات الوحدة العربية، 2003.
This book sheds a new light on the Greco-Arabic translation movement that started with the Abbasid accession to power. It highlights, inter alia, that this movement was:
- A social phenomenon that spread on a relatively long period of time of almost two centuries: 8th and 10th centuries;
- It was led by the society elite: the Caliphs, princes, merchants, bankers, army commanders, professors and scholars;
- It has mobilized all ethnic and religious groups;
- It benefited of huge public and private subsidies;
- It followed a rigorous scientific method based on a program that was supported by many generations of translators.
 In this regard, it is worth mentioning the work initiated by King Abdul-Aziz Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca that aims at creating a bibliographical database encompassing Arab translations related to social and human sciences. The first CD-ROM was published in 2007 compiling around seven thousand translated titles from about 36 languages. The updating of this bibliographic tool is underway; a second edition of the CD-ROM is to be published in 2010.
 Richard Jacquemond, ibid., p. 53
 Mohamed-Sghir Janjar, ibid, p. 55.
 Chawki Jalal Mohamed, ibid, p. 69.